[York] never sinks into oblique facts, but he does not forget them, either. He never ignores the simple truth that he is writing poetry, and crafts a collection that is moving and substantial.
Jake Adam York’s latest poetry collection, Persons Unknown, takes the poet in a familiar direction. Like his two prior collections, Persons Unknown is, in the poet’s words, an exploration of Southern history that pays special attention to the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. But York’s preoccupation with this period of American history does not mean his poetry self-imitates or stagnates. Rather, York has built upon his previous works to create a collection of lyric, historical, and cultural relevance.
York’s poetry is a historical poetry. Faced with ineluctable truth, the poet searches for something that is gone now but somehow still recoverable. It is a fiction, but only kind of—it comes steeped in the Civil Rights Movement and its actual memories. York confidently reveals the identities of these neglected martyrs, these persons unknown: Charles Eddie Moore, Henry Hezekiah Dee, Mack Charles Parker, Emmitt Till, Aaron Lee, Joseph Thomas, to name just a few. In his notes at the end of the collection, York informs the readers that in addition to these men, over 80 additional martyrs have been identified. York’s collection is undoubtedly an elegy for these martyred men and women in the Civil Rights Movement. And although York calls these figures in his book “persons unknown,” he is able to recover at least a shadow of them in his poems, and by doing so he is able to make them known again in the realm of the living.
Inherent in its nature, York’s work is focused intently on a particular place—the Deep South. York takes his reader all across this region, to Jackson, Mississippi; Selma, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; and (last but not least), his birthplace of West Palm Beach, Florida. As such, Persons Unknown is filled with personal as well as historical questioning. York’s reflections grow more self-deprecating and intense as he goes on, and these climax in the self-portraits that come in the book’s second half. Take for example, “Self-Portrait at a Bend in the Road.” After catching a vague glimpse of himself in a car window, the author writes somewhat menacingly,
The mountain’s dark behind me.
My hand’s on the latch
The last warmth still there.
One of us is leaving.
One of us is already gone.
This kind of eerie conclusion to the poem is most effective because of the formal deviations that York has employed here. Most of York’s other poems set up a couplet pattern—which he rejects in “Self-Portrait at a Bend in the Road” for the more breathy tercet. However, York has upended his readers’ expectations by ending with two one-line stanzas, something done nowhere else in the book. This unanticipated deviation heightens the emotional weight of these two closing lines, a precise and conscious move by the poet. By why, the reader might ask, would York do such a thing? What does this kind of poetic construction do?
The answer may come from within York’s own poetry. The last poem of Persons Unknown, fittingly entitled “Elegy,” reaches back into poetic history as well as American history. The mixing of these elements might help explain his motives:
In Greek, elegy means mourning song,
a poem for what’s been lost, and the Greeks
Always cut something from their lines,
a syllable or two, to create a silence
or a place to hear it, maybe breaking meter
stepping quick then stopping, so the pain can arrive,
and so the elegy, the mourning song,
reaches for what’s missing or left behind
York’s study into the Civil Rights Movement is not meant to be an indictment of the American consciousness; rather, he strives to present the stories of these persons unknown so that his reader cannot help but reflect on this murderous chapter in American history. He never sinks into oblique facts, but he does not forget them, either. He never ignores the simple truth that he is writing poetry, and crafts a collection that is moving and substantial. Persons Unknown is a necessary addition to the oeuvre of civil rights literature and the conversation it (still) invokes.